Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memories Doll
Isabella, the heir to a noble house, attends a school for well-groomed young women under a "contract" with her father. To her, this beautiful place where white camellias bloom is nothing more than a prison. Having resigned all hope and expectations for her future, Isabella meets her new manners teacher, Violet Evergarden.
This side story film for Violet Evergarden was completed before the devastating arson attack on Kyoto Animation in July, but it stands out as the first Kyoto Animation work to be released in the wake of that tragedy. Nobody could have foreseen this at the time, but Violet Evergarden: Eternity and the Auto Memories Doll might stand as Kyoto Animation's letter to the world about what kind of studio it was, and what kinds of people worked there.
In a way, it's fitting that a Violet Evergarden film has taken up that symbolic role, given that the series is about moving on from tragedy. As fans may remember from the TV series, the eponymous Violet Evergarden is a war veteran who has lost someone very dear to her. Through working as a doll who writes and delivers letters for others, she learns to understand the emotions that can be expressed through words and comes to terms with her own feelings of loss. This side story film is set at an indefinite point after the TV series, as the results of Violet's character development can be seen in how she carries herself and empathizes with others throughout the story.
The film is divided into two parts. The first focuses on a young heiress who can't let go of her origins in poverty, and it's the stronger story overall. It's atmospheric and melancholy, which is Violet Evergarden at its best. The second story, which focuses on a young orphan girl who wants to become a postman despite never having learned to read or write, is more straightforward and saccharine. Taken together, the two stories are representative of the series' strengths and flaws. Violet Evergarden has a strong directorial hand but a tendency to overplay its emotional scenes. As a film, it's disjointed, especially due to the weak transition between the two stories, but in true Violet Evergarden fashion, the payoff is worth the frustrations.
The production values are also completely in step with Kyoto Animation's reputation and legacy. Violet Evergarden was one of Kyoto Animation's most beautiful productions ever, and that remains true for Eternity and the Auto Memories Doll. The compositing and lighting are standouts, successfully replicating live-action film techniques in order to convey a unique ambiance among animated works. Save for one delightfully exuberant ballroom scene, the character animation is restrained, focusing on subtle and understated movements that convey volumes about their emotions.
As far as surprises go, the most prominent new element that this film brings to the table is its focus on an intimate relationship between two girls, complete with familiar yuri tropes. The first story is set in an all-girls school populated by rich heiresses. Like Oscar from The Rose of Versailles, Utena from Revolutionary Girl Utena, and other works inspired by the women who play dashing male roles in the Takarazuka Revue, Violet dazzles the ladies around her with her stoic and "knightly" demeanor, and there's even a ballroom dancing scene where Violet shows up in a dress made to resemble a tuxedo. I wasn't expecting Violet Evergarden to lean so heavily into the classic yuri aesthetic, but in retrospect it's a total fit with the series' Victorian England-inspired setting.
The relationship between Violet and Isabella plays out like an archetypal "Class S" narrative, where a girl enjoys intimacy with another girl during the liminal period of her adolescence. Isabella initially takes time to warm up to Violet as her tutor in the ways of being a lady, perceiving the conventions of ladyhood as a prison. But when Violet shows empathy for her when she cries at night for her lost past, Isabella finds herself drawn to Violet. They bathe together and play with each other's hair, and at one point Isabella muses to herself, "I wish we could just run away." But eventually, Violet has to leave for her next assignment. Although she says, like she always does, that if her client so wishes, she'll come running anywhere, Violet Evergarden has always struck me as a story about treasuring ephemeral experiences.
The second story drops the yuri element by focusing on Taylor, the young orphan girl who Isabella parted ways with in the past. Taylor forms a bond with Violet's coworker Benedict and decides that she wants to work at the postal company too. This story is definitely lighter and more cheerful than the first, but it eventually circles back to the themes expressed in the first story: moving on from a lost past that can never be reclaimed, and the power of letters in affirming bonds.
Honestly, while it's fitting for the anime's tone, it's saddening that these stories touch on societal problems like classism and heteronormativity in such a resigned way, as if they are obstacles that can never be overcome. What good are letters to people who can't read them? The class divide between Isabella and Taylor is the source of the film's most heartbreaking scenes. Yet even when the world is unfair, people can still find peace with themselves through words or art. There couldn't have been a more fitting takeaway from a Kyoto Animation work at this current time.
Violet Evergarden is not my favorite Kyoto Animation work, and the stories in this film are not my favorite in the series. But the capacity of art to speak profoundly to its viewers remains on full display. Like the letters exchanged between Violet Evergarden's characters, this film contains the feelings of its staff. Even as time passes, and the past drifts further out of reach for those of us who remain in this world, those feelings will remain. This film is proof that they lived.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Animation : A
Art : A+
Music : B+
+ Bittersweet theme of treasuring ephemeral experiences is powerful, great production values and direction
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